D: Stephen Gaghan
S: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Jessie Buckley
If animals could talk to producers, they’d probably gripe. Why even give Hugh Lofting’s beloved vet the big screen treatment again? None of the previous outings ever worked. There’s a hugely forgotten musical with Rex Harrison, which shockingly snagged an Oscar Best Picture nomination in 1967. Then, there was that 1998 Eddie Murphy comedy, which was too dependent on butt jokes to pass as innocuous kids’ fare. That spawned a 2001 sequel and a gaggle of uncalled-for direct-to-video follow-ups, sans Murphy. Now, here we are. And again, why?
This is Robert Downey, Jr.’s first film appearance since Avengers: End Game, and what a way out of Marvel retirement. It’s his turn to play the Brit vet endowed with the ability to talk to critters, this time depicted as a disheveled Welsh widower who shuns the world after losing his wife. Of course, the grief-induced reclusion doesn’t last long. A random lad (Harry Collett) winds up in his estate and volunteers to be his apprentice. Then, a royal aide (Carmel Laniado) summons him to save the ailing Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley). “We’ve no choice but to embark on this perilous journey”, Dolittle acknowledges at some point, almost sounding like a warning to viewers. And, off he goes, with his manic menagerie in tow.
Most of the $175 million budget went to hiring an all-star cast, mostly award winners, to do the animal voices. There’s Emma Thompson as Poly, the blue macaw who acts as Dolittle’s advisor (arguably the only character here who makes sense); Rami Malek as Chee-Chee the socially anxious gorilla; John Cena as Yoshi the chullo-wearing polar bear; Kumail Nanjiani as Plimpton the obnoxious ostrich; Octavia Spencer as Dab-Dab the duck with the prosthetic leg; Craig Robinson as a feisty squirrel; Ralph Fiennes as a vindictive tiger; Selena Gomez as a giraffe; Marion Cotillard as a fox. Listen closely and you’ll also hear Will Arnett as a hare and Tom Holland, once again playing sidekick-of-sorts to Downey, as a near-sighted dog. Playing human characters are Michael Sheen as Dolittle’s former schoolmate and rival, Jim Broadbent as a devious lord, and Antonio Banderas, fresh from his acclaimed Almodovar stint, as a pirate king. Now, if only the star power translated to charm. It’s all wasted on excessive flatulent humor here.
It’s sad to see Stephen Gaghan, previously an Oscar winner for writing Traffic and a nominee for Syriana, being involved in this mired undertaking. Production had to undergo 21 days of reshoots with director Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), after poor test screenings. Chris McKay (The Lego Movie) wrote additional lines, and Seth Rogen was also hired as an 11th hour humor consultant. The adage about having “too many cooks spoiling the soup” surely comes to mind. And this concoction is one you’d rather skip.